Kathlyn M (known as Kara) Cooney is Associate Professor of Ancient Egyptian Art and Architecture and Chair of the Department of Near Eastern Language and Cultures at the University of California, Los Angeles. Specialising in craft production, coffin studies and economies in the ancient world, Kara received her PhD in Egyptology from Johns Hopkins University.
She co-curated Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2005 and, in 2009, produced a television series called Out of Egypt, which was screened on the Discovery Channel.
Her books include: The Woman Who Would Be King: Hatshepsut’s Rise to Power in Ancient Egypt, which was published in 2014, and When Women Ruled the World, which will be released later this year. In her new book she explores the reigns of six Ancient Egyptian queens and looks at how they have changed our perceptions of power.
Dr Cooney’s ongoing research is in coffin re-use, primarily focusing on the 19th and 21st Dynasties and investigating the socio-economic and political turmoil that plagued the period and, ultimately, affected funerary and burial practices in Ancient Egypt. This project, which she started in 2010, has taken her around the world studying and documenting nearly 300 Ancient Egyptian coffins in collections in Cairo, London, Edinburgh, Paris, Berlin and Vatican City.
You have a new book coming out this year, can you tell us about it?
In When Women Ruled the World, I focus on six Ancient Egyptian queens: MerNeith, Neferusobek (or Sobeknofru), Hatshepsut, Nefertiti, Tawosret and Cleopatra – and I ask why the Egyptians allowed women to take power more regularly and systematically than anywhere else on earth.
I also look at what our human hostility towards female power is all about. This is the most political book I have ever written and the most scientifically grounded one, because I am reading a lot of evolutionary psychology and cognitive biology – differences between males and females – and trying to understand our human reaction to power. I am going far beyond my past research interests, looking at queens from 1st, 12th, 18th and 19th Dynasties and the Ptolemaic Dynasty. I am looking for patterns as I try to understand what makes these women similar.
In many ways this book is a tragedy because the women who are successful, such as Hatshepsut, are forgotten, erased, removed, and also the only culture that systematically allowed women into power was a highly authoritarian regime. It is only in places that are so authoritarian that women are allowed, or needed, to come in and protect the family dynasty and the patriarchy. It’s very much about why women in Ancient Egypt were allowed to take positions of power so regularly and systematically as opposed to anywhere else in the world. And given that, does that mean that the Ancient Egyptians were more liberal towards female power than the rest of the world? Or is there something else going on? Where does it come from and how does it work?
When women were in power in Ancient Egypt, did they have to behave like male rulers?
The masculinisation part is interesting. I think that women know that their femininity is a threat. They know it in terms of power situations. They know it inherently. They know that they can’t get credit for things. They know that they can’t show ambition for its own sake or display that ambition. They know that they have to downplay their attempts to get power. Today, at a workplace meeting, they might allow men to take credit for some of their ideas or would present some of those ideas not necessarily with certainty, but with more circumspection. I know a biologist (and there are studies that have borne this out) who says that women are less dualistic in their thinking. They are more nuanced. They are more uncertain in their decision-making. I count that as an asset rather than not, but many cultures feel safer with an authority figure who is decisive, not nuanced. I think that women know they have to present their power, their rules, in a particular way. They also have to present themselves in a particular way, trying to remove the perceived threats of emotionality or nuance.
Ancient Egyptian queens sometimes even appear in a masculine guise; Hatshepsut, for example, has been depicted with a false beard, and Cleopatra was more than a match for most of the men around her.
Egypt presents us with the most stark examples because women are masculinised in statues or in relief form to fit a prescribed model of rule that is very old, archaic and very male, in images such as the lion or bull… That kind of a kingly model is something that a queen, such as Hatshepsut or Cleopatra, tried to inhabit not just for a few years, but for a couple of decades. We see different reactions to that.
Queen Hatshepsut ruled alongside her young nephew. As he was maturing, she too was growing older and realised that she had to masculinise. And you can see that evolution in her statuary; she made a half-hearted attempt where she was shirtless and yet still had that beautiful face and hint of breasts. But the result was this strange androgynous statue. Hatshepsut realised that this androgyny was unsuccessful and her next statue attempt was a full masculinisation with pecs, biceps and the strong musculature of masculinity that you would expect to see in a male leader.
Cleopatra VII took a very different path, even though she also ruled for a couple of decades, like Hatshepsut. She maintained her femininity throughout, maybe because she was able to have children. She linked herself to Roman warlords [Julius Caesar and Mark Antony] by having children with them. She retains her feminising aspects as a form of Isis herself, in opposition to the masculinising all around her. Why those decisions were made is unclear.
I would say that Hatshepsut left Egypt better than she found it by fitting the role, by being a traditionalist, whereas Cleopatra lost eveything in one disastrous battle. She opposed, in many ways, the traditional method of how a woman should rule in an ancient land like Egypt.
Did women have more freedom in Egypt than in other ancient civilisations? They seemed to have had a lot more rights than Athenian women, for example.
Yes, if you’re talking about rich women, then Ancient Egyptian women definitely had more power in terms of their household and their economy than in other parts of the Mediterranean – and perhaps in the Levant and Mesopotamia as well. They had legal rights that stun people when they look at their legal codes today. They’re like ‘Wow! Look at what Egyptian women have. Private property! The ability to divorce!’ And while that’s true, it doesn’t necessarily translate into real political power. That’s a pattern that I have to follow more carefully because Ancient Egyptian women did have more legal power than Greek and Roman women. They also do end up taking more power systematically in government. So you just have to wonder how much the daily life system actually reflects what kinds of power women were able to create in government.
But in my new book, I’m looking at six queens, and it’s very interesting to see the Egyptians themselves pushing back against female power. After Hatshepsut, there was a mighty pushback by Thutmose III and Amenhotep II. They even hamstrung the office of ‘God’s Wife of Amun’ and you didn’t see [female] power coming to the fore again until the ideology itself had taken a dramatic shift under Akhenaten. That is when you see real female power; Nefertiti acts as the co-regent with her husband and, then, possibly, as a king in her own right after his death – but it’s only because of a dynastic crisis.
Then, in the 19th Dynasty, there was another female kingship with Queen Tawosret, and then another pushback, so we didn’t see female power again until Cleopatra VII. It seems that there is no female power in Egypt when the centrality of kingship is not strong. So, if you move through the 25th, 26th, 27th, 28th, 29th and 30th Dynasties, most of which were compromised in some way in their power over Egypt, you see that female power was also compromised. The stronger the kingship was, the stronger the female power could be to protect that patriarchy. The Ptolemaic dynasty allowed women to rise to power. There was Arsinoe and Berenike before Cleopatra VII, and they all exercised great power as members of the Ptolemaic family. They go together: the stronger and more unified the dynasty, the more female power there is.
Was this female power linked to a divine source, to Isis, for example?
The Egyptians celebrated feminine power, both divine and human, with all of its hormonal craziness. That female, mercurial nature was something that was celebrated, honoured. It included Isis, Hathor, Tefnut, Sekhmet – they are all painted with the same brush. They are interchangeable. They are essentially the same goddess, the same feminine divinity.
I could compare them with Hindu goddesses like Kali and Durga – the feminine divinities that can take the evil in humanity and just utterly destroy it and rip it apart, with the bloody images shown. This is not something that’s bad. It’s something that’s good, so it must be appeased. What India doesn’t have for the most part, though, is the feminine power aspect in real life society, but that is something that Ancient Egypt did have.
Your research work has focused on mummies and coffins; does it make you think a lot about mortality?
I did field work in graduate school clearing Theban Tomb 92, the tomb of Suemniwet. For a couple of seasons we were clearing out the human and funerary debris within the tomb complex. Tomb robbers had already visited these tombs many times and so we were in a set of burial chambers that were filled with the detritus of humanity that had been pulled apart. Bandages had been pulled off, coffins broken up into bits, figurines were scattered all over and there were pieces of funerary debris everywhere.
We cleared out this material from the grid or square, and found a hand here, a head there, a torso here. The body parts were smelly usually; we put those over to one side for the forensic archaeologists to go through and to try to reconstruct those individuals. We were trying to process and understand all of this material while understanding that whole context.
I found a human hand but I didn’t know if it was male or female. It was a mummified hand with the skin and the nails and the cuticles visible and intact. And it looked more human to me than the skull that I found moments before. A skull, when it’s poorly mummified is a gruesome thing that doesn’t look that human. It looks like a monster, something horrific… but this hand had humanity, a softness to it.
I could imagine this hand lovingly stroking a child or a lover. I could imagine this hand hitting somebody or being used in self-defence. I could imagine this hand doing all of those things that my parents’ hands had done for me and, then, I realised that I could see my own parents’ hands in my mind’s eye. I didn’t have to look up what their hands looked like; I could just see them. And then I realised that the hand is like a face. It is a part of the person that we, as human beings, pull into our memory, our family memory, our cultural memory. It is a part of our connection with the mother, the father, the lover, the child. It is something that is so incredibly intimate in terms of human interaction.
Of course, we can all worry about dying, but you know, I see my son. He’s going to live forever! He’s going live for 100 years. Maybe global warming will get him. I don’t know, maybe I’ll get to live for 100 years, too.
You have examined around 300 Ancient Egyptian coffins and one of your interests is coffin re-use. Could you explain that please?
In ancient Egypt, during times of crisis, people took over other people’s coffins – coffin re-use became the norm rather than the exception. The coffin is just a vehicle, and so a coffin is a social document. It can tell you about the gender of a person, their spending ability, their religious understanding and where they fit into society.
You can gain so much social information from a coffin. And then after that, the coffins from a period of government collapse or trade route disruption shows the very clever adaptations that people make so that they don’t have to relinquish their dearly held religious beliefs or rituals. What happened, for example, is that they took a body from a coffin, updated the coffin (like you’d update your bathroom or your kitchen) and then put a new person, who is freshly dead, into it.
Today, more people are cremated now than ever before, but we are still mummifying and that is because of display. Generally, when you mummify a body it is because you are going to have the open casket displayed in the funeral home. And so the display is essential and mummification is part of the display – it’s no different from the Ancient Egyptians. They needed to show that body to an audience.
Most Egyptologists and, I dare say, most archaeologists have been inclined to look at this ritual of display through a religious lens, thinking people did this because they believed that this would happen, and that would happen. And they forget that people had rituals because they wanted to compete with other families. They wanted to have a certain socio-economic status. They wanted to show off. And they wanted to have a display in front of a large audience that gave their family a tremendous amount of power. I always hold to the old adage: the dead do not bury themselves.
This is a reflection of the families who are doing the burials rather than the dead. And I’m working on that in my next book. The first chapter includes a queen who benefitted from sacrificial burials, people killed to accompany her in death. And I could just talk about that, or I could talk about the fact that she also buried her dead husband with sacrificial victims. She was there when her son was too young to rule on his own, ordering who would die and who would live, standing there watching as the courtiers that she grew up with were dispatched before her very eyes.
Yet, in contrast, Ancient Egyptian literature is a celebration of life.
Oh, yes, I love their stories and myths. They’re bawdy. They’re funny and, if you go to Egypt today, you find that the people who live there are bawdy and funny and in-your-face and intense. In Egypt today, everyone is your family member. Everyone is there to tell you what to do. Everyone is an interfering in-law. That’s just the way it is. It’s very disconcerting for somebody from Britain, for example, where people mind their own business, more or less, because to have everyone in your business all the time, it’s like your whole town is your in-laws. It takes a while to figure out that’s just the way Egyptian culture works.
You can imagine the Ancient Egyptians playing jokes on each other. The practical jokes you see among Egyptian workmen would have happened all the time. It was also a very sexual place. Sex was not something hidden; it was accepted. When people talk about their love poems, I call them sex or infatuation poems. You see everything in them. People can’t forget about their love; they’re obsessed, they’re stalking. So that hasn’t changed much either. They’re very true to life and true to form in terms of their intensity of emotions, passion and human connection.
• When Women Ruled the World by Kara Cooney will be published in autumn this year (2018) by National Geographic Press.